(In French, On TV, November 2018) I’m not sure I completely accept Richard Gere as dashing young knight Lancelot trying to win over the queen (Julia Ormond) from King Arthur (Sean Connery). But that’s First Knight for you. The film makes a big deal out of the 35-year age difference between Ormond and Connery, but not so much of the 16-year difference between Gere and Ormond. (But that’s been Hollywood’s idea of an acceptable age range ever since the first movie moguls hit their mid-thirties.) More significant is the film’s overall lack of energy or reason to care: It’s, by design, an unsatisfying premise—who dares have Richard Gere best Sean Connery!?—and the limp execution from Jerry Zucker (better known for comedies) doesn’t do much to help. Even the high points, such as a ridiculously convoluted obstacle course, don’t quite manage to make the film come alive. The treatment of the Arthurian myth is realistic, but for a hollywoodian ideal of realism that seems like an uncomfortable compromise. I probably would have liked the film if I actually cared more about reinterpreting the Arthurian myth … but I don’t. First Knight is also severely harmed by the mid-1990s wave of far better historical movies set around the British Isles, along the lines of Braveheart or (better yet) Rob Roy. The result is not terrible, but neither is it particularly good. Maybe worth a watch for fans of Connery, Ormond or Gere even if their casting is sometimes dubious.
(On Cable TV, November 2018) Watching A Bridge Too Far, I was struck at how closely the film initially seemed to follow the template of The Longest Day: A lengthy WW2 drama covering both sides of the war, with a lavish re-creation of the fighting and an ensemble cast of superstars including Sean Connery, adapted from a non-fiction book by Cornelius Ryan. But the comparisons only go so far, especially as the movie advances and the military operation goes sour. It’s certainly worth noting that a significant cultural shift happened in-between 1964’s The Longest Day and 1977’s A Bridge Too Far: The Vietnam War did much to affect the public perception of war and audiences having digested MASH and Catch-22 and Kelly’s Heroes in 1970 alone were far more willing to embrace a film about an unsuccessful operation. (Even A Bridge Too Far’s opening narration is a bit off-kilter, suggesting a level of built-in cynicism that would have been unheard of fifteen years earlier.) While there are plenty of enjoyable wartime heroics in A Bridge Too Far, mistakes in planning, insufficient intelligence, bad communications and plain old happenstance all contribute to a costly failure. Still, if the events described by the film may be frustrating to watch, the film itself is entertaining enough. The historical re-creation of the massive airdrops is impressive, the massive explosions are numerous and the sheer number of recognizable actors is also notable. Connery gets a great character to play, but there are equally interesting moments for Michael Caine, Robert Redford, Gene Hackman and even Anthony Hopkins in a very early role. The film does not describe a particularly glorious moment for the allied forces, but that may add to the sense of discovery while watching it—I’m a modest WW2 buff thanks to having read many histories of the era as a teenager, but I had either not learned or forgotten much of Operation Garden Market until A Bridge Too Far refreshed my mind. It’s quite a spectacle, and it’s not quite as well-known as other WW2 movies. In any case, it’s worth a watch if the subject matter interests you.
(Second viewing, On DVD, October 2018) There aren’t that many good creative reasons for Never Say Never Again to exist. It’s a movie that owes its existence to a rift between the original James Bond movie creators, resulting in the rights to the Thunderball story and Spectre as a plot element being given to someone other than Eon Productions. Money is a powerful motivator, and so we ended up with a legal James Bond movie not made by the usual Bond people, but somehow starring Sean Connery in one last go at the character, graying temples and all. The story itself is a blatant remake of Thunderball, not only with stolen nuclear weapons being used as a plot driver, but with similar narrative stops at a health clinic and fancy yacht, not to mention similar character names. While the film’s pacing sharply improves upon Thunderball-era Bond, most of the “updates” affirm the early-eighties origins of the film more than anything else—there’s a particularly funny sequence involving Bond battling it out with the villain not on the casino table, but in a video game with deadly controls. That part really hasn’t aged well. But what did age well is Connery himself—there’s a real treat in seeing him, obviously older, taking up the character once more. Speaking of aging well, it’s also fun to see Kim Basinger in an early role (sheer aerobics jumpsuit and all), but it’s a reminder that she looks just as fine today than back then—and she’s now a far better actress too. This being said, Barbara Carrera is often more striking than Basinger, with a villainess role that she embraces with a relish rarely seen from other Bond girls. Klaus Maria Brandauer is not bad as the film’s overall villain, and Rowan Atkinson shows up in a small bumbling role. While Bond’s sexual conquests are still dodgy, they do feel like a step up from the original Thunderball, and the film is notable for suggesting that Bond will live happily ever after in a committed relationship. It ends up being a decent swan song for Connery, far better than the ludicrous Diamonds are Forever. While Never Say Never Again is not part of the official Bond continuity (and probably won’t ever be, even if the film’s rights are now owned by MGM) it does fit in a Bond completist’s viewing order: It’s not a great Bond, maybe not even a good Bond, but it’s worth a look especially if you’re going through the entire series.
(On DVD, September 2018) I really expected Time Bandits to be more fun than it is—after all, it’s a Terry Gilliam production, a visually inventive kid’s-fantasy film that seems to have stuck a whole generation of viewers. (But not me the first time around—I was slightly too young.) Alas, and this is not really the film’s fault as much as the evolving industry standard, there has been an explosion of kids-fantasy movies since then, each showing new thrills, fancier special effects and more fluid directing. For all of the considerable creative efforts made in Time Bandits’ production, it definitely looks dated today—rigid directing constrained by special-effects requirements, with obvious soundstage backdrops and overdone acting. I did like quite a bit—the Lego pieces in the climactic sequence are fun, and there are some visually arresting sequences. Plus, hey, Sean Connery. Alas, the appeal of the film stayed limited, not quite strong enough from a story perspective to transcend its production limitations. Time Bandits fans should rest easy, though—I’m writing essentially the same review for all sorts of other kids-fantasy films of the early eighties, from Time Bandits to The Neverending Story to Erik the Viking. Time moves on, and for views without an initial attachment to the film at their moment of release, it can be an uphill climb to discover them today with all of their shortcomings.
(On Blu Ray, September 2018) I often complain about excessively long movies, but even at nearly three hours, I found The Longest Day riveting throughout. A meticulously detailed overview of the Allied landing in Normandy during World War II, this film takes a maximalist approach to the event: It features dozens of speaking roles in three languages, as it tries to explain what happened from the American, British, French and German perspective. Character development gets short thrift, but that doesn’t matter as much as you’d think if you consider the event as world-sweeping history featuring four nations. An all-star ensemble cast helps propel the story forward with some sympathy, as the personas of John Wayne, Richard Burton, Robert Mitchum, Sean Connery (in a very funny pre-Bond role), Sal Mineo and may others guide us through the war. The black-and-white cinematography is gorgeous, and hits anthology levels with a sweeping minutes-long uninterrupted shot of urban warfare. (There’s also a great camera movement early in the film that shows the beach landing and many of the 23,000 soldiers used during filming.) While Saving Private Ryan has eclipsed The Longest Day as the definitive portrayal of D-Day, this 1962 production remains important as a historical document in itself: Many cast and crew had been in Normandy twenty years later, to the point where some actors were portraying people close to them when it happened. (Richard Todd was offered his own role and ended up taking that of his then-superior officer, and ends up speaking “to himself” during the movie.) Visually, the movie remains spectacular even fifty-five years later, and it gets better the more early-1960s stars you can spot. (This also works for historical figures—Omar Bradley is instantly recognizable in a one-shot role.) It’s an exceptional tribute to the events of June 6, 1944, a thrilling adventure story and its relatively bloodless nature doesn’t undercut its portrayal of war as being hell where anyone can die at any time. It’s quite a rewarding film, and it’s even better when you can understand more than one of the three spoken languages.
(Second Viewing, On Blu Ray, September 2018) There’s the end of a James Bond era and the beginning of another in Diamonds are Forever. It would be the last of the Bond movies to focus on Spectre and Blofeld (due to rights issues, no less) until the 2010s, and also the last of the EON-sanctioned productions to feature Sean Connery. It also marks the first Bond to truly lean on the craziest possibilities of the Bond franchise: Far from the relatively grounded On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, here we are with satellite laser weapons, gymnast bodyguards, a moon rover chase, body doubles, a pair of camp gay assassins, a reclusive billionaire, circus intrigue and so on. Whew. It sounds like a lot, and indeed at times we wish for the film to calm down a little bit. The result is firmly in the tongue-in-cheek Bond formula phase that would be so firmly exemplified by Roger Moore’s tenure. This being said, Connery’s return to the role is welcome even if the film isn’t as good as his other ones—he’s visibly older than in previous films, and the added touch of gray and world-weariness suits him well. Lana Wood makes for an intriguing Bond Girl, although her role becomes less and less interesting as the film advances. Indeed, there is a sense of missed opportunities in Diamonds are Forever that is made worse by the deliberately silly tone—the first minute of the film is awesome as an angry 007 travels the world and brutalizes informants in the search for Blofeld, but this soon turns to mush with an unrelated smuggling plot and a limp return to Blofeld later during the film. There are plot holes and dumb character decisions everywhere, not helping the film’s credibility or impact in the slightest. Some of the action scenes do work well, though—the chase through Las Vegas has a uniquely American flavour that sticks out (although, after being immersed in the very British atmosphere of the Bond series for a few movies, it reminds us by contrast that American culture and way of life is really, really weird) and even if the car-on-two-wheels stunt makes no sense, it’s still remarkably fun to see. While clearly the worst Connery-era Bond (I abhor Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd), I still have a bit of a fondness for Diamonds are Forever, largely because it’s closer in tone to the Moore movies through which I was introduced to Bond.
(Second viewing, On Blu Ray, September 2018) As far as Bond movies go, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is a weird one. It has quite a bit running against it, but substantial assets as well. It’s the one that introduced snowy mountain fortresses (and subsequent downhill chase sequence) to the Bond lexicon. It’s the one that, at least until 2006’s Casino Royale, had the most character development for Bond, whether we wanted it or not. It’s the one that, even more than Thunderball, stepped up the frequency and intensity of the action sequences that became part of the Bond formula. It’s the one that stuck most closely to the original Fleming text, once again whether we wanted it or not. It’s the one with the best Blofeld, with Terry Savalas in fine form as an evil mastermind unafraid to take up guns and get down with the killing. It’s the one with the best direction of the early Bond movies (thanks to Peter R. Hunt), perhaps all the way to Skyfall—it’s sometimes visually interesting in its presentation, which is more than can be said for the unobtrusive style preferred by other Bond directors. It’s the one with the nice instrumental title tune that’s been remade so well by Propellerheads. On the other hand, it’s the one with the sucker-punch of a downer ending, the one that doesn’t quite fit with the rest of the movies. It’s the only one with George Lazenby as Bond—he’s not exactly a bad Bond, but he doesn’t have the je-ne-sais quoi that the best Bonds have: the suaveness of Connery, the debonairness of Moore, or the brute force of Craig. It’s the one that compounds a decent villain plot with an over-the-top brainwashing fillip that makes the entire thing feel silly. It’s the one with the cutest early Bond Girl (Diana Riggs) but also the most mystifying, popping up at random intervals doing things solely to help move the plot forward. It’s the one that messes with the film formula, not quite going for the gadgets and not quite respecting how M and Moneypenny are best used. Some are fond of praising this film over the others and I can certainly see their point, but the truth is that On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is distinguished because it stands alongside the other Bond movies—I’m not sure it would have done as well as a purely standalone film. It does feel a bit long at times, and rather arbitrary in far too many respects—the opening sequence alone piles up the coincidences to an untenable height. Even though this isn’t the most popular Bond movie, you can see its influence on later films of the series and most clearly on the Craig cycle—Skyfall was just as upsetting in the way it played with the formula, and the lesson here is that you get to do these off-Bonds once every generation. My take is that On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is just as good a Bond as the others … but it cannot be evaluated along the same criteria as the ones immediately preceding and following it.
(Second viewing, On Blu-ray, September 2018) Bond goes to mid-sixties Japan in this fifth instalment (after a three-year break), and the film soon becomes one extended Orientalism riff. To be fair, Japan was considerably more exotic to Western audiences fifty years ago and the film wisely avoids much of the truly regrettable stuff. (Which isn’t to say that watching Bond doing in-universe yellowface isn’t mystifying, or that there isn’t a laugh or two in seeing the film laboriously explain what is a ninja.) The sexism is worse than the racism, but again there’s some slack to be cut given that the movie is fifty years old. Once you get past those problems, You Only Live Twice remains a strong Connery-era entry by codifying two of the series’ most defining icons: showing the scarred-face cat-petting villain Blofeld (later becoming Austin Powers’ Doctor Evil) and setting the climax in an underground lair in an extinct volcano. Add some spiffy space-age plot, a travelogue through then-mysterious Japan and you’ve got the making of a classic-formula Bond. (The script is from no less than Roald Dahl—and if you think that’s weird, check out who wrote the script for Chitty Chitty Bang Bang—who famously complained about the instructions he had been given regarding the number and nature of Bond Girls.) Bond doesn’t spend a single moment in England, but M and Q and Moneypenny all show up a few times to keep him on the right track. The special effects are ambitious and flawed, but the spirit of the sequences they serve is there. All things considered, You Only Live Twice remains a slight improvement over Thunderball. I first saw this film as a boy and remained mystified for a long time about the opening sequence and How could Bond actually come back from the dead?!?. The best thing about a jaded middle-age re-watch is that it now makes perfect sense that they faked his death, even if the specifics of the scene seem elusive.
(Second viewing, On Blu Ray, September 2018) By the time its fourth instalment came around (a remarkably short four years after its debut), the James Bond series had it all: a well-honed formula, a rapt audience and a star coasting on pure charisma. This may explain why, after the early highs of Goldfinger, its follow-up Thunderball can feel just a notch less interesting. Much of the elements are firmly in place: exotic locales (although recycling some of the Dr. No scenery), memorable Bond Girl Domino, even more memorable antagonist Largo, one of the biggest Bond Gadgets in the Disco Volante yacht that sheds its rear end to become a hydrofoil, and a big nuclear-driven plot. (Oh, and an unforgettable Tom Jones song.) Alas, much of the film is messier than needed: The opening segment set in a health clinic has a confusing game between Bond and prey (and a distasteful example of coerced seduction), many of the underwater scenes feel longer than needed, and some of the ambitious special effects don’t sustain contemporary scrutiny. Still, much of the fun of the classic Bond era remains. Sean Connery may be overfamiliar with the role by this fourth outing in four years, but he does remain as cool as the character has even been. Q is back with a few gadgets, we get a glimpse inside Spectre’s boardroom, but the one great scene in the film is one where the femme fatale explains in some detail that Bond will not turn her to the light side through his seductive powers. Otherwise, after three films where the Bond formula gets formalized, this is a film that feels more on autopilot than the others, even if the execution, with its numerous underwater sequences, feels as maximalist as it was possible at the time. It’s still good fun, and it’s going to be interesting to revisit its remake Never Say Never Again so shortly after seeing Thunderball.
(Second viewing, On Blu Ray, September 2018) The James Bond series really caught fire on its third outing, with Goldfinger hitting upon the mixture of overblown villainy, hot dames and cool secret agent. From the table-cutting laser to the modified Aston Martin, from the cheekily named Pussy Galore to the ludicrously exotic (and fictional) way of being killed with gold paint, from the stocky henchman to the final 007 timer count, you can finally feel the series tweak the formula that it would follow from then on. It helps that the film is above average in several aspects: Gert Fröbe makes for an oddly compelling villain, the evil plot is actually cleverer than usual, and if you pay attention, there is an interesting subversion of Bond’s role in having him being a bystander for much of the film. The already-established fundamentals of the series are there in good form: the globetrotting romp through a handful of countries, Q’s gadgets, and, of course, Sean Connery’s imitable yet unsurpassed charisma. In most technical aspects, Goldfinger has aged remarkably well: the gadgets feel contemporary, the period detail is fascinating (ah, that look at a mid-sixties American commercial strip!), the editing is more modern than contemporary standards, and the pacing holds up thanks to Bond’s early introduction compared to previous instalments. Alas, it’s not all great: the film’s sexism is often unbearable, whether you’re talking about the “man talk” slappy dismissal of a minor female character, or the plot hinging on a reluctant seduction with echoes of “Bond can turn any woman straight.” There are other annoyances (hey, Bond doesn’t like the Beatles!), but they don’t feel quite as unforgivable as the film’s clearly retrograde ideas about women. Oh well; at least we’ve got “No, Mister Bond, I expect you to DIE!” to fall back on.
(Second viewing, On Blu Ray, September 2018) I could have sworn that I had seen all the James Bond movies as a young teenager, but watching From Russia with Love has me doubting, because at the exception of the last five minutes, I remembered almost nothing of the film. Maybe I only caught the end of it when I was young. Maybe I saw it and didn’t care, because compared to other Bond movies, this one ranks much lower on the ludicrousness scale. I wouldn’t exactly call From Russia With Love realistic or subtle (there’s still SPECTRE, serial seductions and fancy gadgets to keep things interesting), but there’s a down-to-earth quality in Bond’s attempt to bring a Soviet “defector” home with a decoding machine that keeps it grounded. It feels dull compared to the excesses of other movies in the series, but it’s a rather good film from a dramatic perspective—especially considering that Bond’s enemies at least attempt to use his own weaknesses (the arrogance, the seduction) against him. Sean Connery is, once again, a delight as the debonair agent, with Daniella Bianchi being OK in a generic way as the main Bond Girl. (Eunice Gayson is a happy surprise, reprising her role from Dr. No.) With this second instalment, the James Bond formula gets a few more upgrades: Q and his gadgets show up, the credit sequence gets a naked dancing woman, Bond gets looser with the one-liners and the exploitation factor ramps up with a gratuitous catfight. While the spy plotting is much stronger in From Russia With Love than most entries in the series, the overall effect is duller than expected. (The lengthy prologue doesn’t help.) It does hint at a possible alternate reality where Bond movies would have stayed grounded in some kind of recognizable reality … but then the follow-up was Goldfinger.
(Second viewing, On Blu Ray, September 2018) I watched all Bond movies as a young teenager (Radio Canada used to play them, one after the other, each Saturday of the summer), so why not do it again as a middle-aged man? Dr. No is where it all begins, with a fully formed character from Ian Fleming’s series of novels. As a first instalment, you can see the general outline of the celebrated Bond formula although it’s not yet in focus nor as finely balanced as later instalments would be. The gadget sequence is a simple gun swap, the action isn’t as fetishized as subsequent movies (fights are over in an instant, although that speaks more to the evolution of the action genre than anything special about this first film) and the plotting is still very much within the realm of the plausible. The film is now fifty-five years old, and it shows in the technology, the cars, the billowing clouds of cigarette smoke, as well as the casual racism and sexism (including Miss Monnepenny’s harassment) built within the fabric of the story. Still, it works because the fundamentals are solid. Sean Connery is splendid as a slightly darker Bond than we’re used to (shooting a guy for no reason, etc.), establishing the character in an instant even as the film feels obliged to play his leitmotif at the slightest occasion. The location shooting is splendid, with plenty of local Bahamian atmosphere and colour. While some editing does feel leisurely, much of the film has the beat-to-beat pacing of modern movies (especially compared to some other early-sixties thrillers). Perhaps Dr. No’s biggest criticism is that, even and perhaps especially for a Bond film, it does feel perfunctory. The formula not having been perfected, the plot is a linear mad-scientist-and-his-lair thing, with a wholly optional Bond Girl (Ursula Andress, looking good in a fairly generic way) along the way. Choosing a non-aligned SPECTRE flunky as an antagonist rather than the more obvious Soviet menace is intriguing, but the film does drop minor characters and subplots like crazy, overplaying some suspense sequences (tarantulas are rather innocuous as venomous threats) while mishandling others such as the Dent face-off. Dr. No, perhaps inevitably, also suffers from uneven pacing—I found the first hour more interesting than the second, but that may have more to do with 1962 anthropology and spending time with Bond in real-world surroundings rather than the more generic infiltrating-the-lair focus of the second half. Still, truth be told, I did have a good time watching Bond’s first outing—it’s fun, the character is strong, and the period feel, almost reaching back in the fifties, is wonderful.
(On Cable TV, May 2018) Sean Connery as an impossibly cool criminal masterminding a gold robbery from a moving train? All aboard! Adapted somewhat loosely from an early Michael Crichton novel, The First Great Train Robbery isn’t much more than a romp, but it’s a superbly executed romp taking us through the Victorian underworld and what was then cutting-edge technology. Not only is Connery terrific in the lead role, but he’s supported by actors such as Donald Sutherland and Lesley-Anne Down in a script from Crichton himself, who also directs and cleverly adapts his material to a far more entertaining tone with an upbeat finale. The pacing is uneven, with some lower-interest segments toward the middle of the film, but it picks up in time for a spirited final sequence that build and build until we’re running on top of a moving train, with stunt sequences that have palpable pre-CGI energy and danger. We’ve seen this kind of film before and since, but The First Great Train Robbery is executed well enough to be a fun film even today.
(Second or third viewing, On TV, January 2018) Whew. I remember watching Highlander in what must have been high school and thinking that it was an awesome movie. I’m not a teenager anymore, but I have to say that Highlander still carries a punch. No, it’s not the best movie ever. Yes, it has visibly aged and remains a film deeply steeped in the mid-eighties. But the rock video aesthetics of the film do lend it an enviable flair even today. The film may have wanted to portray the degeneracy of the time with its emphasis on heavy metal and entertainment wrestling as opposed to the nobility of an immortal Scottish highlander, but it works. Christophe Lambert has seldom had a more iconic role, and Sean Connery is perfectly used as a cranky mentor. (Clancy Brown is good enough as the antagonist, and so is Roxanne Hart as the love interest/audience stand-in.) The clever script is just good enough to earn our interest quickly, and develop the premise with effectiveness. Swordfights in modern rainy New York City? Bring it. Still, it’s director Russell Mulcahy who gives the biggest boost to the film by adapting then-unusual music video elements in service of a longer film—the impressive visuals are still striking (ah, that shattering-windows climax!) and the music is a strong component of the film. In retrospect, after numerous inferior sequels and a long-running TV show, there’s something about the admirably incomplete lore of the film’s premise. An immortal, a prize, a few big sequences signifying the progress of the quickening … it doesn’t take much more, and over-explaining it all rather ruins the experience. While Highlander does lose some of its appeal once viewers grow out of their teenage years, it’s still a good fantasy/action film, and a rather effective time capsule of the time. Just ignore the sequels.
(On Cable TV, December 2017) While Alfred Hitchcock remains an essential director even decades after his death, his individual films haven’t all aged as gracefully, and Marnie seems to have been more damaged than most by the passing of time. Part of it has to do with the absurdity of its premise; parts of it have to do with evolving social standards; parts of it have to do with now-outdated filmmaking. In narrative terms, Marnie not only piles on bits of silliness as premises, but also pushes the “psychologically damaged protagonist” angle pretty hard, with childhood trauma explaining aberrant behaviours in ways that haven’t been convincing in decades. But that pales in comparison to the ways the characters treat each other, with a marital rape sequence that pretty much kills any sympathy for anyone in the movie. Then there’s the atrocious has-to-be-seen-to-be-believed horse sequence in which a flurry of disconnected shots can’t quite convince us of a horse-riding accident. Take all of that (and a score of smaller annoyances), blend together and the result is barely palatable. While there is some coolness to seeing Sean Connery in a Hitchcock film (playing a much harder version of even his Bond persona), and Hitchcock is trying something more blatantly stylistic here, the result seems disjointed and unlikable even as a dark thriller. Tippi Hedren stars as the ice blonde, although Diane Baker is more striking as the brunette foil. Opinions differ as to what is Hitchcock’s best period (I’ll put my chips on 1954–1959), but as far as I’m concerned, Marnie is out of it.